Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 196

The gulf between Russia and the West, in terms of perceptions and media coverage of events in Chechnya, has come to the fore with the bombings yesterday evening in Djohar, the republic’s capital.

According to reports by correspondents for Western news agencies based there, scores of people were killed last night when at least ten missiles hit the heart of the Chechen capital. One agency cited local officials saying that about thirty bodies had been recovered from the ruins of a maternity ward, including several newborn children and women who had just given birth. The agency reported that most of the deaths occurred when six rockets hit the city’s central market. Local officials were quoted as saying that 118 people had been killed and 400 others wounded. Russian military spokesmen were quoted calling the reports of the strikes on the capital “another provocation designed by [the attack’s] organizers to discredit the Russian troops” (Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France Presse, October 21-22).

Neither NTV television, which is part of Vladimir Gusinsky’s Most media empire, nor Russian Public Television (ORT), the 51-percent state-owned channel generally thought to be controlled by Boris Berezovsky, mentioned the bombings in their evening news broadcasts. The Interfax news agency reported that a “powerful explosion” was “reported to have shaken the central market place in the Chechen capital of Grozny [Djohar].” It quoted a Chechen military official saying that five missiles had hit the Chechen capital, and cited local authorities in saying that scores of people had been killed or wounded. The news agency reported, however, that “there is no credible data on the blast” (Russian agencies, October 22).

NTV’s news programs this morning led with reports of “explosions” last night in the Chechen capital. The channel cited Western reports on the blasts, along with the reported toll of 118 killed, 400 wounded. But it then quoted Russian military officials as denying that their forces had carried out any such attack and suggesting that the blast may have been the work of Chechen terrorists. At midday today, a military spokesman told NTV that federal forces had destroyed “a bazaar dealing in arms and ammunition” near the stock exchange in the Chechen capital, but that civilians had not been killed in the operation (NTV, October 22).

The state news agency Itar-Tass was particularly busy today. It quoted CNN as saying that more than 100 people died and around 400 were wounded in a rocket or bomb explosion in the Chechen capital’s central market, but then quoted a Russian air force spokesman calling reports of air force involvement in the attacks “disinformation.” In subsequent reports, Itar-Tass quoted CNN as warning that “information coming from Chechnya should be treated with caution,” and a Russian military spokesman as saying that Russian forces had carried out no artillery or rocket attacks on the Chechen capital yesterday. It also ran an item, datelined London, which claimed that only one newspaper, the Times of London, had a “Western” correspondent in Djohar (many agencies are using local stringers), and warned that reports by Agence France Presse were coming from “Chechens who have channels of communications with France Presse, which seriously lowers the objectivity of the source.” Itar-Tass also claimed that all maternity wards in the city had already ceased functioning before yesterday’s attacks because their equipment had been stolen, that the Chechens had formed special “disinformation battalions” and that Chechen terrorists were taking hostages en masse to use as “human shields” (Itar-Tass, October 22).

Most of Russia’s main newspapers today did not report the bombings. An exception was Vremya MN, which reported that a rocket yesterday evening had hit the building of the Chechen armed forces’ general staff in the capital, while another hit the city’s central market. The paper cited a preliminary death toll of more than 100 (Vremya MN, October 22). The paper’s correspondent in the Chechen capital, Maria Eismont, also works for the Reuters news agency.